Original Document
Original Document
Mary Lou Williams on Her Musical Education in Pittsburgh, 1954.

I have been tied up with music for about as long as I can remember. By the time I was four I was picking out little tunes my mother played on the reed organ in the living-room. We lived in a big, timber-framed building: what we called a shotgun house, because if you fired through the front door the shot passed through all the rooms and out into the back yard, likely ending up in the privy.

Quite a few musicians came to our house. And my ma took me to hear many more, hoping to encourage in me a love of music. But she wouldn't consent to my having music lessons, for she feared I might end up as she had done – unable to play except from paper. Soon I was playing piano around the district, though I was so small I had to sit on someone's lap to reach the keyboard.

There were two children, me and my older sister Mamie. My father I had never seen. A year or two later, the family moved to a neighborhood in Pittsburgh which brought me my first experience of interracial feeling. This entire section was 'white' for five or six blocks, and for a while somebody was throwing bricks through our windows. There was nothing to do but stick it out in silence. Pretty soon the people there were tolerating us.

Then my mother married a man called Fletcher Burley. As a stepfather he was the greatest; and he loved the blues. Fletcher taught me the first blues I ever knew by singing them over and over to me.

Now it happened he was known as a professional gambler, and he sometimes took me with him at nights – to bring him luck, he said. We had moved again, to Hamilton Boulevard in East Liberty [a suburb of Pittsburgh about six miles from the main drag], and I went with him into a variety of smoke-filled gaming rooms, most of which had an upright against one wall. The game was generally 'skin' - the Georgia skin game - and the players would all be men, for women weren't allowed in these places. I was kind of smuggled in, and before the cards began I used to play a few things on the piano. Often I received as much as 20 dollars in tips, which my stepfather had started rolling by dropping a dollar in his hat. This 'pound' had to be returned to him as soon as we got outside. Still, it was a fair deal.

We also visited Saturday hops and parties given at someone's house to raise money for rent and other bills. These functions were known as house-rent parties or chitterlin' struts. The windows were kept shut and the atmosphere was stagnant, but I was always fascinated by the boogie pianists and shuffling couples dancing on a spot. Sometimes they'd hire me at a dollar an hour for three hours. I would bring out all the blues and boogies Fletcher had taught me. Should I attempt a popular song or light classic, my stepfather would ask why didn't I play some music.

I had now been attending Lincoln School for a couple of years, learning music and playing college teas and such. Outside, I had earned a local reputation as 'the gigging piano gal from East Liberty'. I was playing quite a bit of jazz now, and beginning to give it my own interpretation. Of course, my playing was influenced by favorite pianists: principally by Jack Howard, Earl Hines and Jelly Roll Morton. Of all the musicians I met in my childhood, one who stands out: Jack Howard, who played boogie-woogie so forcefully that he used to break up all the pianos. For those days, he was one of the grooviest, but never made the name he deserved. Jelly Roll I dug from records, and his composition, The Pearls, was then my number one solo. Many years later I recorded it for Decca at the instigation of John Hammond.

Offers for me to play dances, society parties, even churches, were now coming in regularly. For most dates I was paid the sum of one dollar per hour, and they always tipped me at the end of the night.

And there was usually something worth hearing in town those days, even if Pittsburgh was not one of the jazz centers. One Saturday night I went to a theatre on Frankstown Avenue where all the Negro shows were booked. But I hardly noticed any part of the show, for my attention was focused on the lady pianist who worked there. She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her swinging left! Impressed, I told myself: 'Mary, you'll do that one day.' (And I did, traveling with Andy Kirk's band in the Thirties on one-nighters.)

Credit: Interview with Mary Lou Williamsl "Melody Maker," April-June, 1954.
Back to Top